Martha Vickers – the starlet who dared to upstage Lauren Bacall (2024)

Martha Vickers was one of the most tantalizing actresses of the 1940s. Today, she’s remembered for her firecracker portrayal of Carmen Sternwood in The Big Sleep and for her turn as the third of Mickey Rooney’s eight wives.

The story of Martha Vickers’ early career is told in an article published in the October 1945 issue ofPicmagazine – available for you to read as a separate, illustrated article on aenigma.

What’s so intriguing about Martha is what might have been. In The Big Sleep (1946) – Howard Hawks’ great film noir based on Raymond Chandler’s novel of the same name, she is fabulously slu*tty as Carmen Sternwood, Lauren Bacall’s out-of-control, drug-addicted, nymphomaniac little sister.

Indeed, according to Martha’s brief biography on Turner Classic Movies, Raymond Chandler claimed that she gave such an incredible performance that she upstaged Lauren Bacall. Since the movie was intended as a vehicle to promote the Bogart Bacall chemistry that had been such a success for Warner Bros with audiences of To Have and Have Not (1944), many of Martha’s scenes ended up on the cutting-room floor.

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Martha Vickers – the starlet who dared to upstage Lauren Bacall (2)

Martha Vickers, pin-up

1945. Martha Vickers' costume, a kind of cross between a bustier and a swimsuit, and the setting carry overtones of...

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Martha Vickers – the starlet who dared to upstage Lauren Bacall (3)

Martha Vickers, dream girl

Around 1945. Dream, baby, dream. Martha Vickers gets into the zone for Jack Woods, as the caption on the back...

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Martha Vickers – the starlet who dared to upstage Lauren Bacall (4)

Martha Vickers, bathing beauty

Around 1945. Martha Vickers models a lurex bathing suit that might be suitable for sunbathing but might not survive a...

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Martha Vickers – the starlet who dared to upstage Lauren Bacall (5)

Martha Vickers, babe

Around 1944. For some reason, photographers seem to have a penchant for shooting Martha Vickers supine – which with a...

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Martha Vickers – the starlet who dared to upstage Lauren Bacall (6)

Martha Vickers, cover girl

Around 1946. That made-to-measure, body-hugging, ruched top that Martha Vickers is modelling is quite something. It's the perfect foil for...

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Martha Vickers – the starlet who dared to upstage Lauren Bacall (7)

Martha Vickers, tomb maiden

1944. Seated in a tomb and flanked by a pair of Egyptian statues, could Martha Vickers be an offering to...

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Martha Vickers – the starlet who dared to upstage Lauren Bacall (8)

Martha Vickers, p*rn star

1945. Martha Vickers as Carmen Sternwood in The Big Sleep sits beneath a lowering Buddha. She’s come for a p*rnographic...

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Martha Vickers – the starlet who dared to upstage Lauren Bacall (9)

Martha Vickers, menace

1945. Martha Vickers' character in The Big Sleep, Carmen Sternwood, is a loose cannon. Here, pistol at the ready, she...

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Martha Vickers – the starlet who dared to upstage Lauren Bacall (10)

Martha Vickers, baby doll

1945. Martha Vickers is irresistibly cute in a sequined and feathered costume. The caption on a variant of this photo...

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Martha Vickers – the starlet who dared to upstage Lauren Bacall (11)

Martha Vickers, blonde bombshell

Around 1947. It looks like Martha Vickers has been on the receiving end of a decision by Warner Bros that...

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So how did an apparently unremarkable, albeit very attractive, ingénue come to threaten to steal the show? The anecdotes that swirl around the making of The Big Sleep offer some revealing insights. In Hawks on Hawks, the director recalls:

We had a great start for that little girl, where Bogart said, “Somebody ought to housebreak her.” I made her sit around almost a day trying little things, taking a piece of hair and bringing it down and looking at it, you know. Because I didn’t want her to be Stella Stevens or somebody like that. I wanted her to be a well-dressed little girl who just happened to be a nymphomaniac.

Martha Vickers – the starlet who dared to upstage Lauren Bacall (12)

Martha Vickers – the starlet who dared to upstage Lauren Bacall (13)

1. Marlowe meets Carmen

In the opening scene of The Big Sleep, private detective Philip Marlowe (Humphrey Bogart) arrives at the mansion of General Sternwood where he meets his provocatively flirtatious daughter, Carmen (Martha Vickers).

Martha Vickers – the starlet who dared to upstage Lauren Bacall (14)

Martha Vickers – the starlet who dared to upstage Lauren Bacall (15)

2. Carmen off her head

Marlowe breaks into the house ofArthur Gwynn Geiger, where he finds Carmen doped up to the eyeballs with a corpse at her feet. The quality of the video doesn't do justice to the quality of the scene.

Martha Vickers – the starlet who dared to upstage Lauren Bacall (16)

Martha Vickers – the starlet who dared to upstage Lauren Bacall (17)

3 The eye of the Beholder

InThe Eye of the Beholder (1953), Richard Conte plays Michael Girard, who is viewed by the other characters as everything from a philanderer to a murderer, and we see the story played out from each of the character’s point of view. It’s worth a watch but if you’re pressed for time, fast forward to 21:40 to see Martha Vickers in the dénouement. Don't be put off by the lip sync!

It must have been quite an experience for the inexperienced Martha Vickers, as this anecdote related by Sheila O’Malley reveals:

Howard Hawks had an idea for one of the scenes – where Marlowe (Bogart) comes into the house, and finds Vickers sitting, all dressed up in the empty house – drugged out, sexed up, in the aftermath of some sexual event. Marlowe can immediately tell that obviously some kind of p*rno photo shoot had been going on. And Marlowe comes upon her, she is high on drugs, and completely out of it. Anyway, Hawks had an idea for this scene (which ended up not making it into the movie – no wonder, with the censorship of the day!): He wanted Vickers to simulate an org*sm, as she sat there, looking up at Bogart. He wanted her to be in that quivery zone where you basically don’t even need physical contact to “get there” – he wanted her to be the kind of woman wholivesin that state.

So Hawks asked her to do so. He gave her this piece of direction in front of Bogart,Regis Toomey(who plays the DA – wonderful stolid character actor), and a couple of other people, members of the crew, etc. You know, moviemaking has a mystique about it but there is also a no-nonsense quality to it that I find refreshing.

Hawks said, “Sweetheart, what we want here is for you to simulate that you’re having an org*sm.”

Martha Vickers asked, “What’s an org*sm?”

Nobody spoke. Nobody knew what to do. They all just stood there, awkward as hell, stunned to silence. Hawks, Bogart, and Toomey – grown men – standing there with a teenage actress – who was asking them (in all innocence) what an org*sm was. Dead silence. Hawks called a 10-minute break. (hahahaha) I mean – what else could you do? Hawks then pulled Toomey aside and asked Toomey to please go and “explain to Miss Vickers what an org*sm is”. I love that Howard Hawks, supposedly the most macho guy in the universe, couldn’t bring himself to go explain it to her – he had to have someone else go do it.

Toomey, who apparently was a good-natured fellow, married with a bunch of kids, the product of a strict Irish Catholic upbringing, gamely went over to Martha and explained to her what an org*sm was. (Wish I could have been a fly on the wall for that one.)

Toomey said later to Bogart, “The girl didn’t know anything. I asked, ‘Are you a virgin?’ ‘Uh yes.’ ‘Do you know what an org*sm is? Mr. Hawks wants you to be having an org*sm here.’ ‘No, I don’t know what it is.’ ‘You don’t know what an org*sm is?’ ‘No.’ And so, dammit, I explained to her what an org*sm was. And she got the idea all right. Howard liked the scene very much.”

How embarrassing was that? Still, judging by her performance, Martha was a quick learner. But perhaps only on quite a superficial level. She would go on to make another 11 movie appearances including in three more noirs, but in none of them would her performance come anywhere close to what she achieved in The Big Sleep. Luck and the vagaries of the Hollywood studios no doubt played their part but it seems that Martha Vickers needed a great director to conjure a great performance from her. That is certainly the impression given by Hawks in an interview with John Kobal:

Now … in The Big Sleep I used a little round-eyed girl to play a nymphomaniac … Martha Vickers … I think she married Mickey Rooney at one time … Lovely. And I made her cut her curls off and gave her … a kind of close … boyish haircut and I taught her two or three things. She played a nymphomaniac, and the studio signed her for a long-term contract with more money than she’d ever gotten. … Okay, she got her first salary check and went down and bought a lot of girly dresses with a lot of … little bows and ruffles and … She started playing a nice girl, and they fired her after six months. And she came to me and said, “What happened?” I said, “You’re just stupid. Why didn’t you keep on playing that part?” “Well, that was a nymphomaniac.” “Look, it’s only a nymphomaniac because I told you so. They liked you on the screen. And you did such a great job of it because you weren’t trying to get sympathy or anything. You were a little bitch. Why didn’t you keep doing that?”

Too bad Martha Vickers didn’t get to work again with Howard Hawks and we never get to see more of herundoubted talent.

Want to know more about Martha Vickers?

The two Howard Hawks quotes are from Hawks on Hawks by Joseph McBride and People Will Talk by John Kobal. You can find the org*sm anecdote at The Sheila Variations. The best source for the reported facts of Martha Vickers’ life is Glamour Girls of the Silver Screenand there’s a nice appreciation by Jake Hinkson of her performance in The Big Sleep at criminalelement.com.

Other topics you may be interested in…

Carole Landis – die young, stay pretty

Lauren Bacall – a dream come true

Movie stars of the 1940s – talent, savvy, looks and luck

Martha Vickers – the starlet who dared to upstage Lauren Bacall (2024)

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